Let me respectfully remind you
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
On this night the days of our lives are decreased by one.
Each of us must strive to awaken.
Do not squander your life.
~A traditional Gatha, a meditative verse chanted nightly in Zen temples~
A natural journey in life is to come to the contemplation of death. It is also a natural part of a yoga practice. Every practice, we are enabled to die to a multitude of forms. Every practice ends with a moment of death, the opportunity to honor the transitory nature of the body and perhaps even the subsequent rising into new life.
Recently, I had two opportunities to contemplate death—one with the book Heartwood: The Art of Living with the End in Mind by Barbara Becker and the second after an episode of the show “This Is Us.”
First, the show. In this episode, one of the main characters receives a call that his mother has died suddenly. When he travels to the place she’s been living, he’s faced with how little he knew her. Her life as he knew it has been transformed into a world filled with community and love. As he gets to know his mother in death, he realizes how separated he was from her living reality. Even still, the pieces of their abiding love and connection come back to him, and in that moment the veil between life and death becomes thin. The bonds between them pass time and space and physicality. As his mother’s funeral ends, the character moves back into presence with the living, his children and his wife, and as he honors the present, it is clear he is also honoring the past. Watching this, I sense the way that nothing can separate us from those we love, not even death.
My husband and I are in the strange middle land of life that this character portrays. There is a pull of the generations on either side of us, my parents and my husband’s parents, several who have died, on one end, and at the other end, our children’s presence filling our days, even as they edge away into their own lives. Barbara Becker likens this to the life of a tree and its heartwood and growth rings. The heartwood is the deepest, nonliving wood of the tree that is less permeable, makes up the center, and began the tree. And the growth rings, called the sapwood, move outward from this denser place, adding concentric circles to the tree’s center. I am tending to both these days, present with both, a center heartwood that remains even as the growth rings expand.
Becker honors the presence of death as a companion to life. Death is the enlivening presence that offers her the opportunity to know life more deeply. With death ever before her, life is made richer. She writes that living with the end in mind is “an ennobling endeavor” and that the more we embrace death, the more we will also embrace life beyond our own self-interests. When I am living with the end in mind, I note a quality of reverence, of compassion, and generosity of spirit in my interactions with loved ones. And in that reverence, I sense a connection that isn’t lost in death at all.
The final words of the book Heartwood offer an image that captures this. Becker writes, “Just as a tree is made up of its life and its death, its beginning and its end, so too are we. Someday, in time and with a little grace, each of us, in our individual lives, will form heartwood. And in the forming, we will sustain those who come after us…If we do it well, if we carefully tend to our lives, watering the soil, minding the thorns, and nourishing the memories of our loved ones, we may come to understand grieving as a beautiful expression of love.”
And so now I come to Savasana, the final physical offering in a series of yoga poses. Some students and teachers alike have a hard time calling it by its English equivalent, Corpse pose. At times, I’ve shied away from the name myself. Yet the pose asks us not to fear, but to rest in the presence of this singular death, to become our most at ease as we recline and release the rest of our work. Honoring the transitory nature of the body makes room to live with presence. We are of the nature to die, so how shall we live?
I am sensing lately the gift of this final pose. If I come into total presence with this practice of dying, how might I also rise in a way that I can carefully tend to my life—the soil, the thorns, the memories—in a way that I can experience both the heartwood and the growth rings; in a way that I can hopefully become heartwood someday for my children.
Jules Renard, a French author, wrote, “If I had my life to live over again, I would ask that not a thing be changed, but that my eyes be opened wider.” Sometimes it is uncomfortable to live with my eyes wide open to the whole of life. And it is more uncomfortable to realize after a person I love has died that I haven’t had my eyes open wide enough. So, I’m practicing resting in both the presence of death and in the presence of the living ones who are making up the circles of my being. And when I wonder who I’m practicing for, who I’m writing this for, I think of my children, my mother, my father, my mother-in-law, my stepfather, my husband, myself. Maybe for you.
Life offers many opportunities to practice staying in the uncomfortable places. The yoga practice, too, is a laboratory for staying and breathing in the discomfort that arises and learning that every sensation isn’t an emergency that must be reacted to. What does this look like off the mat? I practice knowing myself a little better. I practice forgiving the humanness, the striving, the desire to be heard and to be right in myself and in those I love. I honor daily goodbyes and try to listen a little more when my loved ones are willing to talk. I practice internally whispering, “darling, I am here for you,” as Thich Naht Hanh taught, when someone speaks of their pain or discomfort. I whisper it to myself too. I spend time with the dead, my heartwood—they remind me to soften. I know how tenuous this body is, so I try to savor the experience of living in it a bit each day. And when the experience of living in a human body isn’t so savory, when I’m sick or hurting, I try not to take it personally. And especially, I try not to miss the chances that arise for me to express gratitude or to step into the river of love.
Oh, but I have work to do. I forget a lot. For now, I practice in the opportunities when I remember. And when I forget, something wakes me up again—sometimes its death—so I can rise again into this life, eyes open, just as it is.
No class this coming Friday, February 18, as I’ll be out of town celebrating my son’s birthday in one of his favorite places—on a snowy mountain with a snowboard under his feet. Wish me well and I’ll hope to see you again on the 25th!
In the meantime, I’m including a short mini-practice and guided Savasana for you here: